Celling Biology

Innovative public engagement during lockdown

Frank Schwach talking to young adults

Portrait photograph of Frank. He is white, has light brown short hair, and is wearing glasses.

Frank Schwach, Senior Computational Biologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Frank Schwach, Senior Computational Biologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

I have always been keen to find new ways to help people understand molecular biology in a fun and engaging way. Since I started at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, I’ve been involved in a lot of public engagement. This includes developing a curriculum for a new A-level course, creating an activity that allows pupils to get a first glimpse at the command line interface that is used for most of our computational work as well as being part of the “Theatre of the Cell”, a project that aims to bring theatrical elements to our public outreach.

I first started in public engagement while doing my PhD in Germany. A colleague had invited a primary school class to come and see the lab so I offered to help out. I really enjoyed coming up with ideas for activities during the day, such as a little competition to grind up plant materials to then test for protein content with a highly visual assay that produces colour in wells in a reaction plate. I loved how much the children enjoyed their day with us and have just carried on since then.

When lockdown started, it soon became clear that our usual approach to public outreach wasn’t going to be possible. My own experience with my 9 year old daughter made me realise that what was missing from the learning experience of children in lockdown was interactivity. Pre-recorded videos exist in large numbers on any given topic. But an interactive session that happens in the moment and is shaped by participants through their questions and comments cannot be replicated by static content, however well presented. I was particularly inspired to do this after having started to take part in live-streamed coding clubs for my daughter, which showed how the platform could be used effectively and safely.

So we came up with an idea to create a public outreach event that would engage participants in an interactive hands-on activity during lockdown. I worked with the public engagement team to plan and flesh out a series of online events. So far, we’ve run two types of events, one of them seven different times. We have reached more than 500 people across the UK and in other countries with these live-streamed events - mostly secondary school students as well as their teachers.

Frank next to a standup desk with a laptop computer. In the background there's a sofa and a framed painting.

Frank at his workstation at home.

Frank at his workstation at home.

One event is built around the design of a diagnostic test for SARS-CoV2, for which we use the free web tool “Benchling” to show how biologists would go about designing the crucial biomolecules for the test. Participants get to use the tool for themselves during the workshop.

A software interface with lots of DNA letters on it. There's a photo of Frank on one side.

Frank demonstrating how Benchling works.

Frank demonstrating how Benchling works.

The other is a live-streamed guided tour of the malaria labs and insect facilities at the Sanger Institute. Participants get to see the labs and the equipment we use live and are encouraged to ask questions about our work and careers in science. The panel included a PhD student as well as staff scientists and technicians to give a broad view of different roles.

Aerial view of the Wellcome Genome Campus with a little picture of Alena. The campus has a green grounds, a lake and scientific buildings.

Alena Pance introducing the Wellcome Genome Campus.

Alena Pance introducing the Wellcome Genome Campus.

Cindy is white, with bright blue hair and glasses. She is wearing a labcoat. Behind Cindy there's some laboratory equipment.

Cindy Smidt in the mosquito room.

Cindy Smidt in the mosquito room.

A lab bench with a hand in a blue glove holding a micropipette. The micropipette has "Hannah" written on it.

Hannah loading a gel with her micropipette.

Hannah loading a gel with her micropipette.

Hannah is white and has red hair. She is wearing some googles and a labcoat. Behind here ther are cupboards and laboratory equipment.

Hannah Jagoe in the laboratory.

Hannah Jagoe in the laboratory.

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Aerial view of the Wellcome Genome Campus with a little picture of Alena. The campus has a green grounds, a lake and scientific buildings.

Alena Pance introducing the Wellcome Genome Campus.

Alena Pance introducing the Wellcome Genome Campus.

Cindy is white, with bright blue hair and glasses. She is wearing a labcoat. Behind Cindy there's some laboratory equipment.

Cindy Smidt in the mosquito room.

Cindy Smidt in the mosquito room.

A lab bench with a hand in a blue glove holding a micropipette. The micropipette has "Hannah" written on it.

Hannah loading a gel with her micropipette.

Hannah loading a gel with her micropipette.

Hannah is white and has red hair. She is wearing some googles and a labcoat. Behind here ther are cupboards and laboratory equipment.

Hannah Jagoe in the laboratory.

Hannah Jagoe in the laboratory.

Based on the success of the guided tour idea, we are currently preparing for a similar event that will focus on the role of informatics in our research and this will be run jointly between the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the EMBL-EBI.

As far as I know, our project represents the first live-streamed online public engagement from the Wellcome Genome Campus. Our aim was to not just develop a stand-alone event, but also to create a pathway for others to follow. We tried to document the process and the way we used Zoom. It took a few attempts to figure out the best way to make the events fully interactive and how to work with the chat to create an immersive experience for our participants. The live-streamed guided tour of the labs had different challenges, such as the “camera work” which, due to current restrictions, has to be done by each presenter with a mobile device.

This project was all about creating a new outlet for our public outreach work during lockdown. It was not aimed at creating a change in our research or the way teachers teach in their classrooms. However, a current trend in education is the idea of the “flipped classroom”, which involves students going through learning materials in their own time at home, leaving more room for collaborative work in the classroom. Online workshops that students can access from home could play a role in such approaches even beyond lockdown.

The format made it very easy to gather evaluation data. Not only do we have copies of the chats, we also directed participants to a survey after each event. We have been very positively surprised by the number of responses we have had and by the level of detail that participants are willing to go into. We had very positive feedback as well as comments that have allowed us to fine-tune and improve these events.

Feedback comments in speech bubbles, surrounded by thumbs-up icons and hearts. "I learnt about primers and the importance of genome sequencing." "It was brilliant, thank you so much and I hope there are more events soon!" "I really enjoyed the session!" "It was fabulous!" "I found the discussion of PCR applications particularly interesting."

The live-streaming platform allows us to reach people in places where the sheer distance to research facilities and universities makes it all but impossible to talk to scientists in person. We often had a very international audience, reaching as far as Peru and Hong Kong. This would never have been possible with our traditional way of delivering public engagement.

More events are already in the pipeline and will be delivered in the second half of the year. As and when schools re-start, we will have to adapt to a slightly changed situation and we will seek input from teachers to make sure these events can be as useful as possible in the school context. We will also need to adapt to working times and content to attract the wider public.